Human, All Too Human
The obfuscation of the facts also buttresses the determination of nations that have committed genocide to punish those few citizens who dare to speak out. Consider, for example, the case of Turkey, which still refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for the twentieth century's first genocide. A major difference between the destruction of the Bosnians and that of the Armenians is that the former has been thoroughly documented--most thoroughly in the United Nations' own reports. (Though unable to prevent or stop genocide, the UN is extremely proficient at documenting it, as evinced by its dossiers on Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.) Yet even now in Turkey, a country that seeks admission to the European Union, it remains hazardous to discuss the actual fate of the Armenians. In 1915, about 1 million Armenians were killed by deliberate murder, enforced starvation and forced marches into barren plains with no food or water. Turkey admits that between 300,000 and 600,000 Armenians died but blames the general chaos of war. Those who contradict the official version are dealt with harshly. The novelists Orhan Pamuk, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Elif Shafak have both faced charges for the thought-crime of "insulting Turkishness," which can bring three years in prison--Pamuk for telling a Swiss newspaper that "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares talk about it," Shafak because of a few lines about the genocide spoken by an Armenian character in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul [reviewed in this issue]. The charges were dropped in both cases, but more recently another writer accused of "insulting Turkishness"--Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos--was shot dead outside his Istanbul office.
Perhaps it is best that the Turkish historian Taner Akcam remain, at least for a while, at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches history. Pamuk referred to the genocide of the Armenians, but Akcam has documented it. A Shameful Act is an important work of record, comprehensively chronicling the destruction of the Armenians, its causes, unfolding and consequences. Richly sourced, Akcam's book utilizes Ottoman materials and archives as well as American and German documents. He writes: "What remains in the Ottoman archives and in court records is sufficient to show that the CUP [Committee of Union and Progress, a k a Young Turks] Central Committee, and the Special Organization it set up to carry out its plan, did deliberately attempt to destroy the Armenian population."
Here, at least, there seems no doubt about the question of genocidal "intent." Akcam swiftly demolishes the argument that Armenians were slaughtered because they had organized an uprising against the authorities. What resistance there was came about because of the deportations, not the other way around. The uprising in Urfa in October 1915, for example, was launched by Armenians deported from Van and Diyarbakir, since Urfa was a stop on the deportation route.
Yet the genocide of the Armenians, as horrific as it was, was not an end in itself, Akcam argues. It was part of a process of "homogenizing" the new Turkish state-to-be. Kurds and Arabs, Greeks and Assyrians, were also ethnically cleansed at this time, although not exterminated. This process was completed in 1923 when Greece and Turkey compulsorily swapped their minorities, thus uprooting perhaps 2 million people from the homelands where they had lived for centuries. Just as Milosevic's Greater Serbia could be built only on the ashes of multiethnic Yugoslavia, so the new state envisioned by the Young Turks demanded the destruction of the multinational Ottoman Empire--an empire that, for all its faults, had allowed different communities and minorities to live alongside one another for centuries.
In Terrible Fate, Benjamin Lieberman also traces the rise of ethnic cleansing and mass murder to the collapse of empire: "As empires broke apart into nation-states, processes of ethnic cleansing and even genocide moved or eliminated many of the people who had once lived under imperial rule." The great merit of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires was that they were not nation-states but a diversity of nations with a common citizenship. But what was once their strength also doomed them, for Vienna and Constantinople had no means of accommodating the rise of nineteenth-century nationalism, whether Hungarian, Serbian, Greek or Arab. Lieberman, a professor of history at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, has written a lively, panoramic work with a fine eye for the human story. Using contemporary accounts, eyewitness statements and diplomatic records, he examines the Balkan wars of the late nineteenth century, the two world wars, the Holocaust, the mass deportation of the Germans from Eastern Europe, the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the continuing fallout of the Ottoman Empire in Israel-Palestine, Cyprus and Iraq.
Lieberman argues persuasively that an intellectual focus on ethnic cleansing, rather than nation-building, generates a dramatic shift in our understanding of contemporary history. Ethnic cleansing has repeatedly proved a necessary component of twentieth-century nation-building: "The story of the rise of the nation-state, a triumph of self-determination, becomes a story of tragedy for those who were driven out." Among his examples is the Palestinian exodus of 1948, and the creation of the State of Israel. Historians still argue vociferously over how many Palestinians were expelled, evacuated or simply fled in panic. Lieberman sidesteps this, arguing that their exodus was not unique. Quite the opposite, in fact: "The Arab departures from Israel seem mysterious only if viewed in isolation from all comparable examples. Ethnic war in other former Ottoman regions had displaced entire peoples, and ethnic war in Israel and Palestine had much the same effect, though this war left some Arabs in Israel."
Lieberman writes movingly about one of the least reported instances of ethnic cleansing in modern history: the expulsion of the ethnic Germans of Eastern Europe after the defeat of the Third Reich. Perhaps 12 million people fled or were ethnically cleansed, the single largest population movement in modern European history.
For years this remained a taboo subject inside Germany, the preserve of right-wing expellees' groups, and even now it remains delicate. Günter Grass's 2002 novel Crabwalk, which recounts the sinking of the German refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945, finally forced the Volksdeutsch exodus into the public arena. But in neighboring countries there is a sense that the ethnic Germans got what they deserved. The Germans of the Sudetenland had ushered Hitler's army into Czechoslovakia. The Swabians of Hungary helped keep the country's wartime ruler, Adm. Miklós Horthy, in the Axis when he began to waver and consider joining the Allies.
Yet how many of the Volksdeutsch were guilty of war crimes? The exodus brought to an end historic European communities: The Saxons of Romania, the Danube Swabians and the Prussians of the Baltic coast have now all but vanished. The victors were sometimes murderous: Czech soldiers seized a train filled with German refugees, ordered them off and shot 265 of them. In Komotau, in northwest Bohemia, Czech forces ordered the entire male population aged between 13 and 65 to the town square and made 100 men remove their clothes, sing the German national anthem and proclaim, "We thank our Führer." A dozen or so were then beaten to death.